February 23rd 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Something rotten led to fish-kill: perhaps fishy environmentalism

EDITORIAL Resistance grows to Beijing's soft-power push

CANBERRA OBSERVED Climate change: deadly ... to political leaders

TECHNOLOGY Electric cars: UK taxpayers subsidise rich greenies


CYBER SECURITY Chinese smartphone threat extends way beyond Huawei

SOCIETY Such grandeur of spirit

POLITICS John Hewson should have as sturdy a Constitution

FINANCE Hayne royal commission sets agenda for bank reform

FAMILY RELATIONS Dad: a girl's first and most influential love

COMMENTARY Words gone feral: rights and equality

MEDICINE AND CULTURE Book captures tragedy of falling foul of a fanatic

SOCIETY AND CULTURE A dog's life: reflections of a grey nomad


MUSIC Serialism a killer: Ideas tend to get in the way

CINEMA Cold Pursuit: Revenge served up manic

BOOK REVIEW Why the West and nowhere else

BOOK REVIEW The escalation of horror and atrocity


FAMILY AND SOCIETY The end of Liberalism

SPECIAL EDITORIAL Has Cardinal George Pell been wrongly convicted?

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The end of Liberalism

by Dr Allan Carlson

News Weekly, February 23, 2019

On the Saturday morning of the National Civic Council’s 2019 Annual National Conference, Professor Allan C. Carlson delivered the keynote address. The Annual Conference was held in Melbourne over the weekend of February 1–3, 2019. Professor Carlson’s address on that same evening will appear in the next edition of News Weekly. In that address he examines the pivotal moment for the future of the family as a consequence of the breakdown of the ‘Liberal’ concept of the family, as he explains it in the paper published here.

NB: The word “Liberalism” as used here with a capital letter has nothing to do with Australia’s Liberal Party, but refers rather to the dominant political philosophy that has shaped Western societies since the Enlightenment.

Fifty-five years ago [1964], the family system of Lockean Liberalism seemed to have achieved complete triumph in the United States, in Western Europe, and in Australia, as well. This system was the legacy of British political philosopher John Locke, who was active in the 1680s and 1690s.

The Lockean model embraced a marital contract between equals, while allowing fathers to take on the “soft patriarchal” roles of breadwinner and nominal head-of-household. It was focused on the procreation and rearing of children as free and rational beings, preparing to manage their own economic affairs; and was freed of the onerous productive functions found in the pre-modern family. This model gained new vindication through the “marriage booms” and the “baby booms” of the 1940s and 1950s.

Sociologists such as Harvard University’s Talcott Parsons gave optimistic, supportive assessments of Western family life. Capping this celebration was William Goode’s 1963 book, World Revolution and Family Patterns, which argued that the “conjugal family” grounded in Lockean Liberalism, in association with Protestant asceticism, was the rapidly spreading norm found in both the industrialised West and in the decolonising developing world. Regarding the family, all was well.

Today, of course, all that lies pretty much in ruins. The Lockean family model has now delivered: low fertility and depopulation; a massive retreat from marriage (among heterosexuals at least); cohabitation in place of marital bonds; among those children who do appear, a surge in what we once quaintly called “illegitimate births”; a growing horde of fatherless, unemployable and unmarriageable young men; the complete triumph of sexual radicalism, evidenced in aggressive contraception, abortion, and even infanticide; and a new totalitarianism, imposing the until recently strange ideas of “same-sex marriage” and transgenderism on all, especially children. The speed of this transition has been staggering.

What went wrong? The answer, I believe, lies within the contradictions found in the Liberal ideology, itself.

The first contradiction: a faulty understanding of human nature

John Locke held a rather dim view of the human male. Each man’s strongest desires, he said, were “self-preservation” and “copulation”. As he wrote: “What father of a thousand, when he begets a child, thinks further than satisfying his appetite?”

With men driven by what historian Scott Yenor has called these “almost useless” social traits, what might entice males into family life? Locke acknowledges that the institutions surrounding the old Patriarchy succeeded in luring men into hearth and home, but only be giving them complete – and often abusive – authority over wives and children.

Since his overall project demanded an end to Patriarchy at the political level, so as to undermine the claims of kings, Locke deemed it necessary to bring an end to Patriarchy within the family as well. His alternative was the “liberal” marriage – of limited purpose and authority – where men might find compensatory satisfactions in friendships with a wife and children. Locke understood that, while it ran against his premise of gender equality, he still needed to cast the father as the presumed head of the family, which in industrial society evolved into the “breadwinner” role.

However, this soft patriarchy proved to be vulnerable. Locke did hold that women had a natural instinct to be attached to and to protect children. While men must in effect be tricked into family living, it comes naturally to women. In Locke’s scheme, women accepted soft patriarchy as the price they must pay to keep a man in the house.

However, some in the liberal order eventually saw that as too great a price. To gain the promised equality, they said, women must instead overcome their maternal instincts and break their affective ties to children and to nature itself. At that point, the contract breaks down. As women renounce their innate purpose, men lose their artificially created one, and the liberal marriage system dissolves.

While John Stuart Mill, writing in the mid-19th century, was among the first to describe this feminist imperative, its roots lay in Locke. Indeed, he readily acknowledged the validity, in certain societies, of the single-parent family, where “the children are left to the mother, follow her, and are wholly under her care and provision”.

So also with polygamy: systems of one man with multiple wives or one woman with multiple husbands. These too, Locke said, could serve as household forms adequate to the tasks of rearing children as “free and rational creatures”. Such matters were subject solely to cultural acceptance, what Locke called “fashion”. Such shifts in “fashion” we now observe.


The second contradiction: the lack of function in the family

Locke’s “Conjugal Society” rested on a “voluntary compact between men and women” that was limited to the “things of their common interest and [common] property”. Under Patriarchy, the economic lives of men and women had been merged, wholly and completely. As expressions of pre-industrial life, such households were also characterised by a great array of productive activities. The sexual and the economic merged fully here.

Locke aimed at families stripped of most functions, economic or otherwise. Property could be held separately, by husband and wife. Since the purposes of marriage were only procreation and the socialisation of small children as rational creatures, and since marriage was always provisional, a strong home economy was neither necessary nor desirable.

While Locke probably did not see the full implications here, his limited family model would prove to be admirably suited – in some ways – to the future capitalist industrial economic order.

In the 1950s, again, Talcott Parsons – channelling John Locke – celebrated this Liberal family for having become much “more specialised than before”. It no longer produced goods of any significance. Following female suffrage, it had ceased to be a unit in the political system. With the demise of the extended family, the new family model no longer played a role in integrating its members into the larger society. This allowed the nuclear family to focus solely on its two “basic and irreducible” functions: the socialisation of children; and the stabilisation of adult personalities.

Yet there is no reason why such an institution “must” continue, as Parsons (following Locke) implied. Indeed, this exclusive focus on psychological tasks easily became both enervating and boring. As Philip Abbott summarises in his fine book, The Family on Trial: “Complete social disintegration is a reality that [was] beyond the scope of Parsons’ vision.” Alas, we now live in the time of such complete social disintegration.

The third contradiction: a reliance on coercive social engineering

In his project to reshape the political order, Locke concluded that he had to remake the family as well. Humans were not born “rational and free”. They had to be made so. Locke invented what we now call “the nuclear family” to shape individuals suited to the Liberal order. In its fundamentals, the task actually resembled later efforts to mold “Soviet Man” or “Fascist Man”. Indeed, lurking within the project was a latent totalitarianism.

John Stuart Mill took the first step in this direction, replacing the goal of a “free and rational child” (with its implicit assumption that all persons would reach the same conclusions) with the modified liberal quest for “individual development” (which could move in a multitude of directions).

In his quest for “perfect equality”, Mill also took steps toward coercion. Once the egalitarian family model had been put forward as the only desirable one, and given that it is not natural, it must be imposed. As Mill concluded: “The family, justly constituted, would [then] be the real school of the virtues of freedom.”

Liberal philosopher T.H. Green took the next step, suggesting that the “institutions of civil life” – that is, the state – could “render it possible for a man to be freely determined by the idea of a possible satisfaction of himself”: muddled language elevating “self-actualisation” into the core or final liberal principle.

Twentieth-century American philosopher John Rawls brought the argument home. His quest for “distributive justice”, “fair opportunity”, and self-discovery for each individual always floundered when it reached real families, not the family of liberal theory. As he famously concluded: “Is the family to be abolished then? Taken by itself and given a certain primacy, the idea of equal opportunity inclines us in this direction.”

The fourth contradiction: Liberalism undermined the one force that actually allowed its family model to work

The Lockean marriage and family system operated tolerably well only within what Philip Abbott calls “an atmosphere informed by Christian faith”. However, another abiding liberal principle is that every social practice should be subject to rational critique. Such practices under scrutiny have most certainly included religious faith, giving rise to a skepticism that worked relentlessly to deconstruct Christianity.

Liberalism has now consumed almost all of the moral capital provided to it by Judaism and Christianity. In consequence, its flaws and internal contradictions have been set loose, with the dire consequences described earlier.

So, what should we do?

Ironically, the first common instinct is to reach out to still another presumed principle of liberalism: tolerance.

The positive reasoning goes something like this: Accept the disappearance of the former Christian family and sexual codes as a necessary adjustment to a new pluralistic era. Embrace the liberal project, which mandates that each individual chart out his or her own meaning of life and the universe. Instead of insisting on a fixed moral code applied to all, allow parents to raise their children in their own way. Allow religious communities to teach their distinctive values to their own members, without their being allowed to impose such values on any others. In short, embrace personal autonomy, parental rights, and religious liberty, that all might flourish in a pluralistic paradise.

The problem here is that few contemporary liberals now believe in tolerance. More specifically, most strenuously reject both parental rights and religious liberty. Why? Because these get in the way of what is now the primary, and in some ways the only, liberal principle: self-actualisation.

As political theorist Patrick Deneen writes in his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, this idea system can be understood as the consequence of a dual revolution: first, the triumph of “anthropological individualism” and the quest for self-actualisation over the historic Judeo-Christian order devoted to faith, tradition, place, duties, and kin; and, second, a “scientific revolution” bringing “human separation from and opposition to nature”.

In this war against nature, “gender theory” is the logical extension, even the consummation, of the liberal idea.

In such an order, parental rights cannot be allowed, for they would surely cramp and distort the fundamental right of every child to find “its” gender identity through proper enlightenment and personal experimentation. Religious liberty cannot be allowed, for the same reason.

This circumstance has led to a curious result. On the one hand, contemporary liberals, as represented by the sexual left, are quite ready to fix their values into law and state regulation, to force everyone to live by those values, and to indoctrinate all children into those values, as matters of justice and truth.

On the other hand, many – most? – contemporary Christians appear to be embarrassed by their values today. They accept the collapse of Christian-inspired family and sexual legal codes as inevitable, a change perhaps even to be welcomed.

Most Christian leaders in the West now sound demoralised: in both senses of that powerful word. At best, they come across as losers, eager to withdraw from the culture wars, asking only to be left alone.

Even more curious is the contrast here between Muslims and Christians. By and large, Muslims are still quite ready to impose their social, familial, and sexual vales – as codified in Sharia – wherever and whenever they get the opportunity. Why? They believe that their faith is true, just, and universal, and they act accordingly.

Regarding these matters, the Muslims may be better at reading the times. As the totalitarian nature of contemporary liberalism reveals ever more clearly, Christians – and other faith communions – will not be left alone by the liberal regime, especially when it comes to children. Indeed, once you understand that modern liberals hold to “gender theory” and “sexual enlightenment” as quasi-religious tenets, they can be expected to behave in no other way. In their minds, the children must be liberated from the chains of traditional religious bigotry and superstition.

Look to the past for the future

How, then, should Christians who hold to the truth and universality of their faithlive today, and move into the future with confidence and joy? How might they build a new society based on the natural family?

I suggest that we might find answers by moving 2,000 years into the past. Here we find the pagan Roman Empire, a place and a regime marked by great sexual and marital disorders. The family-centred virtues of the old Roman Republic were long gone.

As historian Robin Lane Fox writes in his book, Pagans and Christians, “acceptedsexual practice in the … Empire had a range and a variety which it has never attained since.” For example, the practice of “Greek Love” – sexual relations between a man and an adolescent boy – received frequent literary praise.

Early Christian writer Tatian, who resided in Rome for several decades, reported that the Romans “consider pederastry to be particularly privileged and try to round up herds of boys like herds of grazing mares”. Adult homosexuality was idealised as well, and often associated with the theatre.

In the major Imperial cities, male prostitution was common and deemed acceptable. Evidence exists of transvestite practices in Rome, as well, often with a religious veneer, such as the cult of Elagabalus. The cults of Cybele and Dionysius featured flagellation rituals, with sexual intent.

Female prostitution was widespread and socially approved. The poet Horace argued that “young men should drop in there, rather than grind some husband’s private mill”. At the high end of the trade were dancers and musicians; at the low end, “two penny” women who worked the street corners and graveyards.

The Roman marriage system was a shambles. When pagan marriages did occur, the females involved were commonly quite young. About 20 per cent involved child brides of ages 11 or 12. Up to half of females who did marry did so by age 14. The men were, on average, nearly twice as old. Custom dictated, nonetheless, a quick consummation of the marriage, even with these pre-pubescent girls.

Roman marital relations were badly strained. Adultery was widespread, and socially acceptable for men. It was common among the women, as well.

The age gap between husbands and wives, the access by the men to prostitutes and slave women, the confinement of Roman wives within their dwellings, and a male culture that celebrated cruelty and violence and held marriage in low esteem: as one can imagine, these patterns rarely produced happy homes. Not surprisingly, divorce became common, sought by men and women alike.

Preborn and infant life faced enormous risks. If determined by the pater familias, abortion was legal and common. Illicit abortions by wives seeking to cover up an adultery were also frequent. The fetus simply had no legal standing.

While the poet Ovid and several other pagan voices raised objections to abortion, their concern focused on the rights of fathers and the needs of the Empire; they were indifferent to the unborn child. (The prominent exception was the great Stoic moralist, Musonius Rufus.)

Abortion kits – some of which have survived – contained the usual blades, hooks, needles, and spikes; diluted poisons were also used. These procedures left many Roman women dead or permanently sterile.

Infanticide appears to have been even more common. Legal under pater potestas (paternal power), male babies with imperfect form and girls were the usual victims. The destruction of baby girls was so common that for every 100 females in 100 AD Rome, there were 131 men; out in the provinces, 140. One historian reports that even in relatively large Roman families, “more than one daughter was practically never raised”.

Finally, efforts at contraception were widespread, even if often ineffective. Herbs, ointments and “medicines” were employed, alongside charms and primitive condoms formed out of animal parts.

In short, Imperial Rome featured normalised sexual disorders, marital malfunction, and a deep hostility to new human life. Not surprisingly, these characteristics led to a low level of fertility, well below the generational replacement level. Both Julius Caesar (in 59 BC) and Caesar Augustus (in 19 and 9 BC) proclaimed laws that would punish the childless and reward fathers with three or more children. The measures did not work. “Childlessness prevailed,” lamented historian Tacitus.1

It was into this setting of moral darkness and deep hostility towards procreation that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth stepped. Their number was small: still well under 50,000 by 120 AD. Early Roman observers often saw these Christians as merely another burial society, a sort of community fund for burying the dead, with its own ritual meal.

Nonetheless, it soon grew apparent that this Palestinian sect held to startling ideas on sexuality, marriage, and family life: concepts radical in their implications. These derived, in part, from a broad acceptance of the pro-natalism of the Hebrew Scriptures, friendliness towards a “full quiver” of children.

The original ‘sexual revolution’

The direct teachings of Jesus on the sanctity of marriage, the sinfulness of divorce, the value of women, the importance and meaning of children, and the sweeping affirmation of life strengthened this attention to procreative marriage. The letters of the Apostle Paul and other early Apostolic writings – especially the Pastoral Epistles – expanded this revolutionary new Christian sexual and marital ethic.

Its earliest summary appears in the Didache, a remarkable manual on church life and discipline now reliably dated to the late first century. Using a rhetorical style of Jewish origin labelled the “Two Ways”, the Didache vividly contrasts the path of “Death and Darkness” with the path of “Life and Light”.

Focusing on the Second Great Commandment – “Love your Neighbour as yourself” – the document features a list of prohibitions that go well beyond the Ten Commandments. Condemnations of theft, murder, and magic appear together with forthright condemnations of fornication, adultery, sodomy, infanticide, and abortion. (As an example of its language: “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion.”)

The Way of Death also includes the use of pharakeia, or potions. Evil men on this path were “killers of offspring, corrupters of the plasma [or mold] of God”. It is clear that the items being condemned were drugs employed as contraceptives and abortifacients.

Linked to this was a fresh sanctification of the marriage bond, involving a radical – indeed, an unprecedented – form of sexual equality. Unlike the Romans and every other ancient culture, the new Christians denounced promiscuity among men as well as among women. Paul’s exposition in 1 Corinthians 7:2-7 showed a symmetry in conjugal rights that, in historical sociologist Rodney Stark’s words, “was at total variance, not only with pagan culture, but with Jewish culture as well”.

In moral and practical terms, this represented the fulfillment of the “one flesh unions” summoned in Genesis, chapters one and two. Reflecting a new equality, the average age for first marriages rose to 18 for Christian women, compared with 14 for the pagans.

Where the Roman pagans faced a great shortage of fertile females – due to infanticide and botched abortions – the Christian movement had an abundance of young, fertile women: an estimated 60 per cent of early believers were female. Even after accounting for early practitioners of celibacy, this was a community open to the propagation, protection and rearing of children.

This openness to new human life had consequences. While hard numbers on differential fertility do not exist, circumstantial evidence affirms that the novel Christian family and sexual ethic, tied to an abundance of young women, produced a significantly higher number of births and the survival of more offspring to adulthood.

Along with conversions (particularly among pagan men married to Christian women), this accounts for the growth in Christian numbers from a negligible figure in 100 AD to 32 million by 350 AD, representing half of the Empire’s population. As Rodney Stark concludes: “Superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity.”2

Observers of the time certainly noted the difference. For example, Minucius Felix, a Christian apologist of the late second century, wrote a tract involving a debate between a pagan and a Christian. At one point, the latter states ”that day by day the number of us is increased”, which he credits to “[our] fair mode of life”.

Or, as Tertullian wrote in a passage to his wife: “To the servant of God, forsooth, offspring is necessary. For our own salvation we are secure enough, so that we have leisure for children! Burdens must be sought by us for ourselves which are avoided by the majority of the [pagans], who are compelled by law [to have children], [but] who are decimated by abortions.”

In summary, during these centuries we find Christian communities subject to frequent persecutions – ranging from the confiscation of property and imprisonment to death in the arena and other terrible ways – living in fidelity to a radically new marital and sexual ethic. It is one that placed the family, not the individual, at the centre of an emerging new social order.

In being faithful to these expectations, especially in the hard parts, the early Christians eventually overwhelmed their persecutors, in a way by sheer numbers. Put crudely, for all the right reasons, the Christians outbred the Roman pagans of the Western Empire, who disappeared from history.


1 On the family and sexual practices of the Romans, see: Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), pp340–364; Tim G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp110–133; A.T. Sandison, “Sexual Behavior in Ancient Societies,” in Don Brothwell and A.T. Sandison, eds., Diseases in Antiquity (Charles C. Thomas, 1967), pp734–343; and Arthur E.R. Boak, Manpower Shortages and the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West (University of Michigan Press, 1955), pp49–54, 109–129.

2 On the family and sexual ethics of the early Christians, see: Robert L. Wilken, The Christians As the Romans Saw Them (Yale University Press, 1984), pp31–47; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton University Press, 1996), pp95–128; Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (Harper Collins, 2006), pp64–70; and Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Intervarsity Press, 1982), pp48–62.

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